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Coffee in Paradise

What we can learn from a tour of coffee joints in Honolulu
Photo by: Harvey Steiman
Don't let the Honolulu's casual coffee houses fool you: Hawaii coffee experts take their beans seriously.

Posted: Feb 8, 2013 11:37am ET

Whenever I hang out with serious coffee people, I am struck by how much we wine folks have in common with them. We obsess over the source of the product and how it was made. We even use some of the same language. Coffee tasters assess acid balance, body, intensity and finish, as we do with wine, and describe aromatics such as fruit, nuts and floral notes. They might find winy character in their brews while we might notice a hint of coffee on the finish in our glasses.

I watched my cousin Shawn Steiman, a coffee consultant who seems to be the coffee guru for the state of Hawaii, blend Hawaii-grown and -roasted coffee beans on the spot. He used the blend to make a distinctive and heady espresso after the dinner he and his bride, Julia, cooked for my wife and me at their home near Diamond Head.

"These are samples for a project I am working on with a coffee roaster," he explained. "They're all slightly different roasting techniques." The components also represented several different islands, and none of the famous (but rare and expensive) Kona. The beans hailed from O‘ahu, Kaua‘i and Moloka‘i. He didn't measure them, sprinkling beans from seven or eight different batches into a bowl and mixing them well before transferring them to the grinder.

The result was a creamy texture, dark and rich but not at all bitter or acidic in taste. "This is too good," I remarked. "I hope you carefully wrote down the proportions." Nah, he said, allowing as how it could be better.

A couple of days later, he took me on a morning's tour of three of his favorite coffee houses in Honolulu. We started at Downtown Coffee, located at the entrance to Cunha's Alley, a historic arcade a couple of blocks from Iolani Palace. A roaster stood by the front door. It's one of the few cafés in Honolulu that actually roasts beans. It was quiet that day—all the roasting occurs on Saturdays—but the results of its most recent use made a gorgeous cup of espresso. New Year's Blend, made from coffees sourced from O‘ahu, Maui and Moloka‘i, had terrific depth to the dark flavors that stopped well short of smoky or burnt.

Fred and Fumiko Hokada, who bought the business in 2010, are the third owners in 10 years. Fumiko pulled my espresso and offered a taste of their matcha tart, a crumbly pastry that makes a unique and pleasant match with the coffee. As we talked, Shawn and Fred put their heads together to choose specific blends for Shawn to use in a tasting he was planning for a trade meeting in Kona later that week.

Around the corner and through another arcade, the Beach Bum Café bills itself as the home of "microbrew" coffee. Sandy-haired Dennis McQuoid opened it in 2011 after giving up a career in San Francisco in high-tech marketing, moving to Hawaii to indulge his love of surfing. He did his research, spending time in Portland learning the art of the barista, and picking the brains of top coffee brewers in Honolulu to study the range these islands produce. A daily changing list offers specific coffees, their variety names and estate sites noted carefully.

I tried a Yellow Caturra varietal from an estate in a region east of Kona, on the Big Island, brewed by McQuoid's preferred method, pouring hot water through the grounds held in a sock. He's actually adapted the idea to attach small muslin bags onto bamboo frames that straddle the rim of a coffee cup. The coffee beans, ground to order, go into the bag, the hot water poured through slowly. The whole process takes about 2 minutes. The result was a wonderfully complex cup, a bit acidic but rich enough to balance, with a finish that kept expressing different layers for quite a long while.

Our final stop was Morning Glass Coffee in Manoa Valley, just downhill from the University of Hawaii's main campus. Morning Glass has nothing to do with drinking coffee in a tumbler (although several patrons were) but a reflection of a surfing term for the flat surface of the ocean at dawn, before the winds kick up. Another surfer-barista in Hawaii, Eric Rose built the place to look like a surf shack, which focuses as much on breakfast eggs and lunch sandwiches as it does on coffee, made from Portland's excellent Stumptown beans.

The brew was reasonably good, but the draw seems to be the surroundings and laid-back attitude. A sign on the door reads, "We understand that some of you are more important than others. Please be patient while we refine the technology to identify and provide you with the service you deserve."

The place might be at the end of a small shopping mall, but its ramshackle ambience is hard to match. Had we not scheduled a more serious lunch in town, I might have tried more than a bite of the excellent "Egg-uh-Muffin," a homemade English muffin topped with locally raised tomato jam, arugula and a scrambled egg.

Downtown Coffee
900 Fort Street Mall, Honolulu, HI 96813
Telephone: (808) 599-5353
Website: DTCoffee.com

Beach Bum Café
1088 Bishop St. #101, Honolulu, HI 96813
Telephone: (808) 521-6699
Website: BeachBumCafe.com

Morning Glass
2955 E Manoa Road, Honolulu, HI 96822
Telephone: (808) 673-0065
Website: MorningGlassCoffee.com

Honolulu, Hawaii —  February 9, 2013 10:02pm ET
Nice seeing you recently in Mavro's. On the subject of coffee-wine overlap, how about Kona Joe's on Hawaii Island. The coffee is grown on trellises a la grapes. Kona Joe's is owned by Joe Alban, California orthopedic surgeon and brother of John Alban of Alban Vineyards. It is great Kona cofee. Had a cup this morning. Tonight a grilled steak with a 2004 Reva. Appreciate your attention to Hawaii.

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